Browsing Posts in Work/Life/Travel Balance

Panama beach

Panama can be one of the world’s greatest places to live on a lower budget than you could in a developed country, especially if you’re a retiree. It’s also a place favored by thousands of very wealthy Latin Americans and business tycoons, however. So whether you find the place a bargain largely depends on where you live and how you live.

As I’ve been mentioning lately, I’m working on a book called A Better Life for Half the Price, about moving abroad to a cheaper destination to lower your monthly expenses. Panama doesn’t figure into my World’s Cheapest Destinations travel book except as a brief honorable mention. While it’s cheaper than Costa Rica, it’s nowhere near as good a value as some other countries in Central America. It is a poster child for publications such as International Living though and has been for at least a decade. That’s for a lot of good reasons:

- It’s a very stable country politically.
- It uses the US dollar as its currency and inflation is minimal.
- The banking system is good.
- Health care is excellent and affordable in the cities.
- Taxes are low, including on alcohol and electronics.
- Regulations are minimal for setting up a business.
- It’s easy to get a residency visa.
- The pensionada program for retirees has terrific benefits.

Panama is no backwater dirt-poor country though relying on what they can grow or dig out of the ground to build wealth. There’s a large middle class employed in all kinds of decent-paying jobs, from call centers to quality construction to the Panama Canal to banking. Most multinational companies have a base here and the whole country is like a big duty free zone.

luxury real estate Panama City

I did an interview that will air soon with Taylor White of the Overseas Property Insider Podcast. He’s stacking cash buying and selling real estate in Panama City, so he subscribes to the philosophy of “You’re going to spend what you’re going to spend, no matter where you are.” For some people that’s true and they didn’t move to Panama City to save money. Taylor spends about as much as he did in San Diego. You can spend a few hundred grand on a fancy condo with a view and there are plenty of temptations in terms of high-end restaurants, clubs, casinos, and beach resort excursions. For many, especially wealthy Latinos, the capital of this country is a “work hard, play hard” city akin to Miami. Living here can cost far less than Miami if you’re careful, but you can easily spend as much as you would there if you want.

There are retirees living in Panama City for less and the live abroad magazines and newsletters continually highlight people getting by on two U.S. social security checks—around $2,400 per month. A typical basket of goods and services is lower here, especially domestic help, transportation, domestic food, wine, and entertainment. Real estate is high for the region though as this is considered a “safe haven” investment for Venezuelans, Argentines, and others.

Outside the Big City

There are plenty of other places to live in Panama, however. Many retirees are attracted to the Chiriqui highlands around David and Boquete or the Bocas del Toro islands. Both these areas have far lower prices to rent or buy.

Panama adventure

Former Texan Richard Kongable lived in a few places in Panama before moving to a rural area near Volcan, on the side of a mountain. I tried a few other places in Panama before settling here,” he says. “I like that I never need heat, I never need air conditioning, and there’’s always a gentle breeze. I’m on the edge of a valley, with a volcano on the left and two rivers. I can see islands in the ocean even though it’s an hour and 20 minutes away.”

Richard rented his house for years for $300 a month and thought he was going to have to leave eventually when the American owner put it up for sale. Instead the owner fell into health problems and needed to sell in a hurry, so with no buyers in sight Richard got the 1,600 square foot house for half price: $25,000. He estimates that his family of three spends about $1,700 a month, including car expenses and about $300 a month for his son’s private school.

Retirees Kris and Joel Cunningham pay $385 per month for a house in a nice middle class neighborhood on the edge of David, Panama and they love it. “We have woods and a river behind us, there’s only one way into the neighborhood so it feels really safe. We’re surrounded by local professionals who are just lovely people.”

The Cunninghams were paying $1,200 per month in Sarasota, Florida where they lived before on their mortgage and taxes. If they had been renting, it would have been more. “The house next to us, similar to what we have now, was renting for $1,500 per month,” she adds.

They have been living on her husband’s social security payment and have a little savings from selling their house in Florida. Kris was about to start receiving her own social security payment when I talked to her, which will double their income and enable them to meet the income requirements for the pensionada program: $1,000 for one person plus $250 for each dependent. “It’s already so cheap though, I feel kind of guilty getting all those extra discounts,” she says.

Kris Cunningham says she has been pleasantly surprised by low costs in Panama, particularly groceries. “Food is definitely a great deal, especially fruit and vegetables. If you spend $20 on those in our local market it will be more than you can carry. We paid two or three times more for almost everything at home, including meat and fish. If you buy what the locals buy and cook, living here is very cheap.”

There’s the key advice that applies almost anywhere in the world: eat what’s local and you’ll probably be both healthier and wealthier. The usual advice that goes with that is to avoid imported products. With some of the cheapest wine and liquor prices in the world here though, you don’t have to make any adjustments in what you drink. This is one of the few places in the world where California wine is cheaper than in Napa Valley and Chilean wine is cheaper than in Santiago. (See this post on prices to booze it up in Panama.)

carnitas-mexico

Want to get a tour of Guanajuato with me and chow down on some good Mexican Street Food? Follow that link and sign up if you’re heading my way.

The problem with having a job that you can do from anywhere is that you end up doing your same job everywhere. A big reason my family ended up in Guanajuato is that most of the tourists are Mexican tourists and we actually use our Spanish regularly. It’s also a beautiful place to walk around, with weather that encourages you to be outside almost every day of the year. When I’ve got my head down cranking out articles and blog posts, however, dealing with freelancers and advertisers, sometimes I look up and go, “It’s Friday already?”

sope GuanajuatoSo if you come to Guanajuato and want to get a tour that mixes some sightseeing, market tours, and lots of chowing down, come get me out of the house. We’ll get some buns from a bakery and see where they make them. We’ll tour a local market and then later a larger covered one. We’ll sample carnitas, gorditas, tamales, and more, washing it down with fresh-squeezed juices.

We’ll ride a funicular up to a lookout point and walk down the alleys where people have only one way to get to their home: on foot. Then we’ll have some street stand ice cream and go our separate ways for a siesta.

chorizo tacos

I’ve taken out three groups so far and I’ll post some testimonials on the site later with their impressions of my tour guide and food fact-quoting abilities. Hopefully by now I know a thing or two about the highlights of my adopted town and the best vendors to buy from. Check the rest of the site out here for details: Guanajuato Street Food Tours.

Hasta pronto!

international travel

Take the leap!

If you live in the UK, Holland, or Australia and you tell people you’re going to go backpacking around the world for a year, you’ll get a lot of nods and slaps on the back. If you say you’re moving abroad somewhere, they’ll probably ask when they can come crash at your place. You probably won’t be looked at as a loony.

In much of the USA or even Canada, however, it’s still a different story. It’s more accepted than it was when I first took off in the mid-90s for a year and then did it twice more, but it’s still an oddity. The first step in making plans to make the leap is to understand that a lot of people just aren’t going to get it. Here are a few reasons why. Maybe if you understand these you’ll be able to just say, “Excuse me, there’s someone over there I need to talk to” when someone starts criticizing your plans instead of getting red in the face and telling them off.

1) They haven’t traveled much.

Most people who don’t understand why you would take off around the world for a year or move to another country haven’t spent much time outside their own country. (In many cases, that’s a good thing for the rest of the world.) You’ve probably seen a map at some point of which states have the most passport holders and which don’t. Here’s one drawn from 2013 figures. If you’ve seen a red state/blue state map, a diversity map, or  college education percentage map, it’ll look pretty familiar with just a few exceptions. As Richard Florida said on CreativeClass.com, “There are stark cultural differences between places where international travel is common and those where it’s not, and we can see them playing out in the cultural and political strife that has been riving the country over the past decades.”

passport holders by state

I’ll go out on a limb and say if your favorite TV news network tells you every day that America is the greatest country in the world and every other place out there is screwed up and scary, you’re liable to look at foreign lands in a more negative light than others.

Here are the extremes, by passport holder percentage. The highest are California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Delaware, and oddly enough, Alaska. The lowest are Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

If you live in San Francisco or Seattle, making this big announcement will be no big thing. If you live in Natchez, MS, different story.

When I left on my first trip around the world, I think some of my relatives sincerely thought I’d come back in a body bag. Now that I live in Mexico, they’re waiting for the news that I’ve been beheaded.

2) They don’t believe you can do it on the cheap

You could buy some people The World’s Cheapest Destinations, send them blog posts with prices, and pull up hotel sites to show them rates in other countries and they still won’t believe you can travel for cheap. As I said in this post, to many Americans, travel means a trip to Disney World, Cancun, or London—or a Caribbean Cruise. They simply can’t fathom that you could eat a nutritious meal for $2, get an hour-long massage for $5, or find a decent double room anywhere for $12. To them, traveling to a foreign country and spending less than you would at home on bills each month just does…not…compute.

Kathmandu hotels

3) They’re envious because their own boring life is all mapped out.

“Going on an adventure” is a depressingly rare event for nearly all the adult population of my home country. Vacations are strictly planned, time off is a too-rare commodity that can’t be spent spontaneously. The race for more stuff and more money to pay a bloated health care and university system saps the life out of most people who have managed to land a good job and keep it. Ask them how their life will be different in five or ten years and they may not be able to think of anything. Or they’ll just say something weak about a hoped-for promotion, retirement, or their kids going to college.

They’ll say, “I wish I could do what you’re doing” and will have plenty of the usual excuses as to why they can’t. It’s all mapped out, pre-ordained, set in stone.

For a majority, the closest they’ll get to an adventure is having an illicit affair with a co-worker or staying up all night “getting crazy” at the next convention in Vegas. They are slaves to routines, commutes, the kids’ activity schedules, and the big-screen TV. You represent a threat because you’re showing them it doesn’t have to be that way. And that’s as scary as the revelation in The Matrix.

international travelers

Hmmm, that does a little more interesting than Paducah…

4) If you’re leaving, that means this place is not perfect

If you’re in some kind of club and people start dropping out, that makes you wonder. If the star performers in your company start taking jobs elsewhere, you’re going to think that’s a bad sign. You feel like a sucker for still being there.

If someone tells you they’re moving away from where you live and that they think this whole lifestyle they’ve been living in your town is not the best they can do, how’s that going to make you feel? Some will just think you’re nuts (see #1). Some will feel envious and maybe a bit bitter (see #3). Others will start wondering if this club they thought was perfect may not be so great after all.

You don’t want to hear your mother say “You’re an idiot for doing this and you should feel guilty for leaving me.”

But then again, hearing “We’re so happy for you” while seeing a dark cloud pass over your friend’s face is not so great either.

Understand that your radical decision (in their eyes) can spur heavy emotions and soul-searching, no matter how much that person knows you’re going to have an amazing time.

But it’s your decision and it’s a good one, so lock the storage shed door and go!

facebook Tim Leffel

I broke down and started a Cheapest Destinations fan page. Come like me if you like me. Or if you just like what I write about.

From the start I’ve been a reluctant Facebook user. I liked the movie and do I admire the ability of anyone to build something that addictive that fast. We haven’t seen such a concoction since the crack epidemic started. Instead of giving your money and your health though, you give all your personal data and a big heap of all your friends’ data. It’s an advertiser’s ultimate fantasy and everyone is still voluntarily signing up by the millions.

I avoid spending much time on there for a more prosaic reason though: it’s a massive time suck. TV is a productivity black hole too, but after a while you go, “Man, there is just nothing on.” With Facebook that never happens. Every minute there’s something new, designed just for you! Your college buddy just posted vacation photos. Your old boss has a birthday. Your sister got a new job. Your work colleague just posted a video that is hi-lar-i-ous. There’s a half-off sale at your favorite shoe store. A special on your favorite beer at the bar down the street. And look at what that cute cat is doing! Plus it’s not passive: there are groups of people obsessed with exactly what you’re obsessed with and you can talk about it any time of the day, wherever you live.

If you’re unemployed and have nothing to do, great fun. If you’re trying to run a business and support a family, half a day can go by interacting with all this and you’ve gotten bumpkis done.

Facebook addict

…and this is from 2012.

The Trouble with 1,000 Virtual Friends

While I’ve long had pages for the websites I run (links on the home pages if you’re interested), my personal one has been, well, personal. I see updates from real people I’ve hung out with and shared jokes with, in person. Relatives I’ve seen 10 times. People I’ve traveled with. You know, friends, not “friends.”

This has long made me an oddball minority though. One day a well-known Travel Channel celebrity host sent me a friend request and I mentioned it to my wife because it seemed odd. “You accepted it, right?” the wife asked.

“Well, I’ve only seen her on TV. I don’t know her,” I replied. “Not even by e-mail.”

“So what?! Just accept it!”

I did, but it bugged me because it broke my rule. There’s a constant push-me, pull-me tug going on from me trying to promote my projects but also trying to keep some shred of my personal life shielded from my work life. I spent seven years working for a record company where my work life was my only life. It was great fun partying with the same crowd I worked with, but when I left that job, I left my entire social structure and nightlife schedule on 6th Avenue in New York. There was no separation between “colleagues” and “friends,” something I didn’t truly grasp until I suddenly had lots of time on my hands. I may be an entrepreneur now, but that doesn’t mean I have to be selling 24/7.

Leffel working

So I’m bowing to the need to have fans and likes in a way I can’t do on my “friends and relatives” page. I’ll probably post more often on this new page because I won’t feel like I’m boring my friends and relatives who don’t travel—or rubbing it in their face that I’m in a new country every month or two for work. And it’s my job to stay at beach resorts and go hiking through the Andes Mountains.

Come join me on the Cheapest Destinations page and we’ll talk about cheap travel, living abroad, and where to get $1 beers. Hey, if you only pop in once every week or two, believe me, I’ll understand.

Who’s with me?

 

Guanajuato Mexico

One of the views from my house

I moved back to Guanajuato, Mexico for the second time this past August and as a couple readers have pointed out, I haven’t written much about it on this blog. That and a few consulting sessions lately with people thinking about moving to Mexico has pushed me to do some catch-up on that today.

If you’ve got some time, check out the video below to get a sense of why I liked this small city the first time I came here and why it keeps pulling me back. The aesthetics are great and it’s been here since before any English set foot in America. What you can’t really see in that video are two aspects I also love. First, most of the traffic moves through tunnels under the city, so it’s a very pedestrian-friendly place to live. Second, the weather is gorgeous almost all year. We’re at an altitude close to 6,500 feet here, so it can get a little chilly at night a couple months of the year, but the climate is agreeable enough most of the time that houses aren’t built with heat or air conditioning. It’s usually blue skies, sun, and highs around 80.

I can turn down a bit of the stress in my business here because I’m spending less than half what I did in the USA on basic living expenses. The first time we were here we rented two side-by-side apartments for a total of $800 a month, all utilities and internet included. Now we own a house outright, so we’re pouring money into improvements and furniture instead. Here are some hard numbers though for regular monthly expenses:

- Daughter’s private school is a shade less than $300 per month
- We spend about $100 a month on transportation getting her there & back (it’s not walking distance)
- We average about $50 a month on other local taxis and buses.
- Here’s a picture of one month’s water and electric bills, in pesos. The 114 peso water bill is equivalent to $8.77 and the 324 electric bill is equivalent to $25. Gas comes out to about $6.50 per month.

Mexican utility bills
- Drinking water in 5-gallon jugs averages about $15 a month, delivered to our door.
- Internet is $25 per month for 5mbps. I’d pay more for a faster speed, but can’t get it.
- Mobile phone charges (1 with data, 2 regular) $54 for 3 of us
- Our maid comes once a week and cleans the house top to bottom. That’s $62 per month.
- Food varies wildly, but a liberal estimate is $300 a month on groceries, $200 eating out
- Entertainment and fun $200 per month
- Medical/dental come in spurts, but let’s say $200 per month

Property taxes are paid annually, but would be $16 if paid monthly. Our house repairs, renovations, furniture, and other purchases vary depending on how flush we are that month. But if we estimate $600 per month, that puts the total monthly expenses at around $2,160 not counting travel.

I want to emphasize that this is for a family of three that’s not being all that frugal. We eat out far more than we did in the USA, I don’t hesitate to order a beer or two when we’re out, and we take advantage of things like $6 symphony tickets and $4 ballet performances. You could certainly live here for far less if you wanted and many people do. Considering that we were spending $2,000 a month in Tampa just on rent though and another $1,000 on health care, our Mexican living budget feels like a screaming bargain. We can spend another $1,000 on travel, visas, and shopping and still just be up to what we used to spend on those two items alone.

Guanajuato callejon

Within four months of moving back here I’d lost 10 pounds. I didn’t diet, drink less, or go to any gym. Getting around in this city requires lots of walking at high altitude though and like most people, we need to climb a lot of stairs to get to our front door. Above is the entrance to our callejon—the alley that goes up to our neighborhood. When delivery men brought a refrigerator and stove, they had to carry it up these stairs you see at the right. Walking Guanajuato

My day to day work life hasn’t changed much, which is a bit of a problem in terms of getting better at Spanish. At some point soon I need to break off some time and go back to classes for a while in order to advance. I’m just not using it enough each day because I’m holed up in my home office, working in English. (My daughter is taking middle school classes all in Spanish though, so she’s golden.) I try to take a walk each day or go out for lunch to enjoy where I’m living and I have a glorious view from my office window.

I’ll write more on Guanajuato and living in Mexico later, with more of the hundreds of pictures I have sitting on my hard drive. Meanwhile, if you’re passing through, get in touch! If you want to see the city through my eyes and my stomach, sign up for my Guanajuato street food tour.

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